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What's next for the Patriots?

With a collective bargaining agreement in place, Willie McGinest already gone and free agency set to begin at 12:01 AM on Saturday, we take a look at what the future may hold for the Patriots in the upcoming weeks.

Now that the salary cap has been bumped up to $102 million for the 2006 season, it gives the Patriots a lot of different options on how to use the extra $8 million of cap space. Signing some of their own players who are about to become free agents is at the top of that list.

The team has already parted ways with linebacker Willie McGinest. There's a chance he will return to the Patriots under a restructured contract but a lot of that is going to depend on what kind of offers the 12-year veteran gets from other teams.

The Patriots also have to worry about their other unrestricted free agents such as Adam Vinatieri, David Givens, Stephen Neal and Tom Ashworth – just to name a few. Plus, the team is looking to bring in a couple of players from the outside to help fill some holes. Throw in that Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour is looking for a long-term contract extension and it becomes quite clear the Patriots have a lot of options on how to spend that extra cap money.

First, lets take a look at their own free agents. Many have predicted all offseason that Givens will not be back with the team next year and even with the salary cap increase, that scenario could still play out. Teams like the Browns, Vikings and Eagles – all teams in need of receivers – have a lot of money to spend in free agency. If one of those teams makes a run at Givens – with the Browns being the most likely candidate – they will have the cap space to offer him a deal the Patriots probably won't be able to match.

Some of the money will go towards brining in free agents from other teams. The Patriots need help at receiver, running back, offensive line, defensive back and linebacker. Some of these positions will be addressed in the draft but expect the team to consider veteran defensive backs, receivers and offensive linemen that can come in and contribute right away.

One name on everyone's mind is former Patriots cornerback Ty Law. While there is no definitive proof Law will return to New England, he's been seen twice at a popular local hair salon over the past two weeks with good friend Rodney Harrison. No one knows for sure if the two are just hanging out together or if Harrison is trying to recruit his former teammate but the fact Law has been seen around the area recently adds even more intrigue to this T.O.-like drama.

The most likely way for the Patriots to spend some of the extra money is to re-sign Vinatieri and lock up Seymour for the future. Vinatieri is going to see what kind of interest he receives once the free agency period begins but if the Patriots can come close to matching another team's offer, there's a good chance he'll be back in New England. The agreement between players and owners on Wednesday to extend the collective bargaining agreement makes Vinatieri's return to the Patriots even more likely.

Neal isn't the big name Vinatieri is but he's valuable to the Patriots because they lack depth at the guard position. Other than Logan Mankins, the team really doesn't have another guard on their roster that can go out and start 16 games like Neal can. Unless he receives an outrageous offer from another team, the Patriots should have enough money to re-sign Neal and keep him in New England for the next couple of years.

The Patriots biggest nightmare would have been if Seymour – the unquestioned leader of the Patriots defense – were allowed to enter free agency in an uncapped year. Their second biggest nightmare is that he enters free agency in a capped year. Either way, if a player like Seymour hits the open market there's a chance he will sign with another team and New England certainly doesn't want to take that chance with a player of Seymour's ability. Now that they have more breathing room with the salary cap, one of the Patriots top priorities should be to sign Seymour to a long-term deal.

Besides Seymour, Deion Branch, Dan Koppen and Asante Samuel are also eligible to become free agents in 2007. Seymour is obviously the big fish but once the team takes care of him, expect them to turn their attention to Branch and then down the line as they try and keep as many of their core players in tact as they possibly can.

The Patriots don't have loads of money to spend in free agency like some other teams do but with the increase in the salary cap; they're sitting in pretty good position for the upcoming season. Look for them to sign some of their own free agents, bring in a couple of veterans and most importantly, try to lock up key players like Seymour and Branch, preventing them from becoming free agents next year. One thing is for certain: the Patriots will be a very busy team over the next couple of months.

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